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Kenji’s Profile
Kenji Heilman



As it turns out this Hatsu basho had even less Yokozuna and Ozeki compete the whole 15 days than the paltry Kyushu basho where we had both Yokozuna and two of five Ozeki out.  But this kickoff to 2003 had plenty of stories, and it had more to do with the evolution of sumo and the passing of the torch than the nagging slew of injuries that is crippling the sport's popularity.


Hatsu basho 2003 marked the end of Takanohana's storied 15 year career.  What can you say about this guy except for he will be remembered as a legend of the sport along with the likes of Taiho, Chiyonofuji and Kitanoumi, who respectively racked up 32, 31 and 24 tournament victories.  Taka comes in at fourth on the all time list with 22 wins but who knows what that tally would be without the devastating knee injury that shortened his career.  His dominance was such that, if you would have asked me back in '95 how many he'd win, I'd have bet he would have easily surpassed Taiho's mark.  Taka was the face of sumo, and his unprecedented comeback last September after a record seven consecutive tournament absences lifted an entire sport form the doldrums in magnificent fashion.  The presence of a great Yokozuna such as Taka will be sorely missed, but do not fret.  It seems appropriate that as the curtain closes on one dominant grand champion, the stage is set for another to be ushered in. 


Enter Asashoryu.  He is coming of age with consecutive 14-1 performances and the first two of what promises to be his own impressive tally of yushos.  He won this time despite a pulled calf muscle, fractured toe and jammed finger.  He is 32-0 in the first 8 days of the last 4 basho, a feat matched only by four famous Yokozuna:  Tochinishiki, Tamanoumi and the aforementioned Taiho an Kitanoumi.  He is the only non-Yokozuna to do it.  He is one of the fastest risers the sport has ever seen.  He exhibits such a combination of speed, counter moves, lower body stability and a burning desire to win that his opponents cannot mount any semblance of an offensive attack.  The sky is the limit for this 22 year old; if he can stay healthy, Asa's name could very well be among Takanohana and the legendary greats in the years to come.  Starting in March, he will embark on his journey as sumo's first ever Mongolian Yokozuna.


Besides headliner Asashoryu, Musoyama was the only other Ozeki or Yokozuna healthy enough to see through the whole basho and it was a struggle at that, as he fought through the remnants of a shoulder injury he incurred on day 15 of Kyushu.  Closing with a respectable loss against Asa this time, Musoyama could only manage an 8-7 mark here but give this guy some credit for soldiering on.  He came back from a dismal 3-6 record and won 5 consecutive bouts to uphold the pride of his rank (albiet minimally).  Let's hope that by the time March rolls around we will see not a Musoyama on the mend but a Musoyama back at the top of his game.


To say the two Sekiwake clashed on senshuraku (final day) would be an understatement.  Kotomitsuki, who lost his shot at double digit wins with a loss to (who else) Asashoryu the day before, seemed in a bad mood and greeted his counterpart Takanowaka with a roundhouse right harite (slap to face) tachiai that resulted in a violent clashing of noggins.  At that instant, Takanowaka, who was still in the hunt for his coveted double digit wins to continue his bid for Ozeki, suffered a concussion and was out on his feet.  He came crashing down to the dohyo in a heap of dead weight, bleeding above a left eye that was becoming puffier by the moment.  Meanwhile, Kotomitsuki calmly crouched beside him awaiting his prize money without even a hint of concern for his fallen foe.  It was somewhat of an eerie scene.  Both finished with 9-6 records that will enable them to keep their ranks in March but leaves a bit to be desired in terms of the content of their sumo. 


Komusubi Wakanosato, after two early losses, ended up being Asashoryu's biggest challenger to the yusho.  For his efforts, he collected his fourth Kantosho, or fighting spirit prize.  Unfortunately, he laid an egg against Dejima on the final day to somewhat sour that prize.  'The Barometer' finishes 11-4 and resumes his quest for Ozeki in March.  Speaking of Dejima, he was Asa's biggest threat early in the basho by steamrolling everyone except the Mongolian but lost too much of that steam in the homestretch that resulted in him losing the Shukunsho, or outstanding performance award.  Still, Dejima closed with an impressive win over Wakanosato for a 11-4 record, one more win than he had last basho from the depths of Maegashira.  I believe it is safe to say that Dejima is back.  He has also struggled with numerous injuries, and there is no one more deserving than him to mount a second bid for Ozeki in Osaka.  Two more 11 win records may get him there.


The other Komusubi Takanonami, coming off a strong 10-5 performance to conjure his own calls to become a 2-time Ozeki, lost his majority of wins on the final day this time in a spectacular loss to Takamisakari.  Takanonami had this opponent just where he wanted him, hidari sashi (left inside position) with big right arm clamped around the other side.  Miraculously, 'Robocop', not one to show defensive resilience or agility for that matter, endured the attack by tight roping the tawara (straw) before disposing the bigger Takanonami with an surprisingly strong sukuinage (scoop throw) from the left side.  I think the quirky Takamisakari was as surprised as anyone, as he stood there motionless for a moment while the arena erupted in applause.  Coming off two losing tournaments, Takamisakari's win gives him a 10-5 record and guaranteed dates with the big boys again in Osaka.  Takanonami ends 7-8 and will be relegated to rank and file again. 


Rank and file?  There were many stories.  To save you from reading a novel, I've summed them up in tidbit form:


·         M1 Tosanoumi has been making a habit of entering senshuraku with a 7-7 record.  All the better for those of us who appreciate his all out approach for a win.  He didn't disappoint here with a win over M7 Wakanoyama, who won majority himself at 8-7.  Tosa's important 8th win should give him the promotion to sanyaku he deserved last basho, even if there will be a log-jam there due to the numerous kackikoshi posted by the incumbents. 

·         M5 Kaiho wrapped up Hatsu basho with a beautifully executed kirikaeshi but finished one win short of kachikoshi at 7-8.  As the only rikishi to beat Asashoryu, that on another well executed uchigake, Kaiho would have been a lock for the seldom given Ginosho (technical merit) award had he won one more bout.  Pound for pound, this guy is one of the best technicians out there. 

·         M6 Kyokushuzan (7-8) and M7 Kotoryu (8-7) locked horns for a 4'35 bout on day 15, complete with mizuiri (water break) in between.  While this bout did swing back and forth a couple times, I was not impressed with the rikishi or the judges.  For about 4 minutes of the 4'35, both guys just stood there.  You may say they're strategizing or jockeying for position, but can you imagine Asashoryu being idle for even one second?  Neither of these guys wanted to win.  This is not good sumo to me.  To top it off, the head judge stopped the bout for the break at one of the rare moments where the two were actually moving and thus broke the momentum the match so sorely needed.

·         M7 Hokutoriki absolutely stunk the place up with a 4-11 record.  I apologize here and now for predicting this guy had potential.  He looked more like a weaker version of Chiyotaikai at his worst, pushing with only his upper body.  Thank goodness M7 Shimotori looked respectable at 9-6 or you'll never have believed me again when I try to predict future joi mainstays.  

·         Speaking of joi mainstays, M10 Tochinonada, after 4 losses to open the basho, reeled off an incredible 11 consecutive wins to finish 11-4.   And he wasn't even considered for a special prize. What's wrong with this picture?  11 consecutive wins is difficult to do no matter where you are on the banzuke.  Tochi will be in more familiar territory on that banzuke next basho:  The joi. 

·         Rookie M12 Takanotsuru (9-6) lost to M5 Iwakiyama (7-8) on the final day and also lost the Kantosho because of it.  However, with an impressive win over Dejima and by being in the yusho mix for a while, he has made quite an impression.  And with his genetic foot problem, you can't help but root for the guy. 

·         M13 Kasugao, also given the stipulation that he must win to secure Kantosho, came through in fine fashion to finish 10-5 despite suffering a hamstring pull the previous day.  It was even questioned whether he could compete.  Well, he came out with purpose and fire for a very impressive win over M2 Kyokutenho (8-7), who is no chopped liver.  Kasugao's speed and aggressiveness exemplifies good sumo.  Keep your eye on this Korean; he could keep climbing.


Below Makuuchi, we had a sumo first as far as the winners of each division.  Actually throw in Asashoryu's win in Makuuchi, and Jonidan (the second lowest division) was the only division won by a Japanese rikishi.  All others were won by Mongolians or Europeans.  Look for profiles on a couple of these guys right here at sumotalk.com in the days to come.  The influx of foreign strength is evolving sumo and is making for an interesting future.  We'll get a closer look at Asashoryu's brethren Asasekiryu, who won Juryo with an 11-4 record, in March.  This Mongolian is marching to the top in a similarly fast fashion but is doing it with a style drastically different from Asashoryu.  Asasekiryu is strictly a belt guy, and a pretty darn good one.


In closing, with Takanohana's retirement we'll have another sumo first when the Osaka basho rolls around in March:  Two foreign born Yokozuna at the pinnacle of Japan's revered national sport.  Although Musashimaru qualifies as Japanese based on the technicality of his recent naturalization, sumo purists will probably lament the absence of a 'real Japanese' Yokozuna.  But let's face it.  As sumo continues to internationalize, we will always be able to appreciate its core existence as a sport uniquely steeped in Japanese tradition.  I hope all of you have enjoyed this Hatsu basho as much as Mike and I have enjoyed sharing it with you.  We thank you for bringing this website alive and remember, March is just around the corner!


Day 13 Comments

In today's highly anticipated feature bout, Asashoryu (12-1) simply overwhelmed Wakanosato (10-3) with his speedy sumo and moved one very large step closer to the yusho and Yokozuna promotion.  It's all but in the bag now as Dejima (10-3) dropped his second in a row and seems to be losing steam, falling this time to crowd favorite Takamisakari (9-4). 


You've got to hand it to Asashoryu.  Wakanosato had the upper hand initially at the tachiai but Asa never stops moving, particularly when he is not at an advantage like today.  He doesn't let his opponent capitalize on position and turns a defensive stance into offense immediately.  When the two clashed, Waka got his preferred position with left shitate (inside grip) and was looking to grab the right uwate (outside grip).  In other words, he was on offense.  But before that could happen, Asa threw a kotenage (hook throw) using Waka's inside arm and turned the tables just like that.  Superior and lightening quick counter tactics like this to kill opponents' position, along with his array of offensive weapons, is what will cement Asa's dominance in the sport in the years to come. 


Takanotsuru, the other rikishi still in the hunt with an impressive win over Dejima in day 12, went from facing a yusho candidate in makuuchi to facing a yusho candidate in Juryo.  Ironically, he beat the the Makuuchi guy and lost to Buyuzan (10-3), who is working his way back up after showing flashes of brilliance in the top flight last year.  Takanotsuru drops to 9-4.


Kotomitsuki lost and Takanowaka won to bring both Sekiwakes' records to 8-5.  The final two days will be crucial for these guys as double digit wins will allow Kotomitsuki to begin a run for Ozeki while allowing Taka to continue his bid.  Remember that Taka cranked out 11 wins last basho, which means with 10 here and 12 wins in March he could presumably be promoted.  This is highly unlikely however judging by his inconsistent sumo this basho.


With two days to go, it's time to start talking sansho (special prizes).  Obviously the comeback kid Dejima at 10-3 and the two entertaining youngsters Takanotsuru and Takamisakari, both at 9-4, deserve consideration.  Also coming to mind is Tochinonada (9-4), who after a horrid start has strung together nine consecutive wins.  Whoever gets the nod just may determine the winner of our hotly contested fantasy sumo competition.  Strap yourselves in folks, we're in the home stretch!


Day 11 Comments

The yusho picture is coming into focus now as we enter the shubansen (final 5 days).  All the hubbub over previously invincible Asashoryu's leg, coupled with Dejima's spectacular return to the limelight has us seeing a pretty darn good race.  We also have a crowd favorite, a rookie feel-good story and "The Barometer" all still in the mix.


Crowd fave Takamisakari and rookie Takanotsuru both suffered their third losses today, dropping them to 8-3.  While this was a big blow to their yusho hopes, tomorrow's match-ups give them both an opportunity to get right back in the hunt.  Takanotsuru faces Dejima while Takamisakari challenges Wakanosato.  This will be make or break.  Whatever happens, these two have earned consideration for a sansho (special prize) with their performances, which could be a nice boost to those of you who have one or both of these guys in your fantasy stables.


Wakanosato lost two early but snuck back into the yusho picture a couple days ago by putting together a string of wins.  He won again today in a not-so-impressive fashion against Kaiho (5-6).  This makes two days in a row where he's won on paper but lost on content.  Both wins have been last gasp prayers, but I guess you could say he is in good form to be able to pull off such victories.  Waka is a quiet 9-2, but he should be nothing but trouble the rest of the way.  Neither Asashoryu nor Dejima have faced him.  Both will be feature bouts very soon.


Dejima made like a Mack Truck again today and floored Kyokutenho.  You just gotta love this guy right now.  Smash mouth sumo at its best.  He is like Chiyotaikai but better because he is more grounded (generates more power from his lower body) and never lets up on opponents.  Could we see him face Asashoryu again after all, in a ketteisen (playoff)?  If so, I'd say Dejima may have a leg up this time (pun intended).


Asashoryu, who stated his nagging leg hasn't gotten better or worse, disposed of newcomer Iwakiyama (5-6) with relative ease, employing what is becoming a patented deep shitatenage (inside arm throw) where he nestles in so closely that he can push his other arm against his opponent's leg for more leverage.  The speed with which he can get inside and establish position is unmatched.  His sense of urgency is even more so now with the suspect leg.  He has three more wins to reach his quota of 13 that seems to have been bestowed him by the kyokai for a promotion.  I think it's a pretty safe bet.


Day 9 Comments

When I played the freshly recorded videotape of day 9 this morning and caught wind of Takanohana's retirement, I must admit I watched the day's bouts in a blurred daze as I tried to put in perspective the fact that we will never again see one of the greatest Yokozuna in history grace the dohyo.  Unlike Mike, I was not anticipating this decision, even after his lopsided loss to Aminishiki yesterday.  Taka had a huge impact on many a sumo fan, including yours truly, so I will save my full thoughts on his career for after the basho.  Suffice it to say that his retirement leaves an emptiness in the sumo world that very few rikishi in history have or ever will. 


That said, did anyone notice that no hands went up to challenge Asashoryu's improbable loss to Kaiho today?  I was like, what's wrong with this picture?  Taka got all kinds of love from the shinpan on day 2 in the exact same circumstances.  Kaiho did clearly win, but not any more clearly than Miyabiyama's non-win against Taka on day 2.  Okay, I won't beat a dead horse here but I thought this was interesting.  I've always liked Kaiho.  He is like a little summertime mosquito that you can't shake.  I also like the story behind his shikona (fighting name), which is derived from his father's fishing boat "Kaiho-maru".  Another interesting tidbit is that Kaiho beat Asashoryu 3 times in a row during a practice session before the basho that infuriated Asashoryu, who then demanded numerous rematches in which he won the next 5 convincingly to show in no uncertain terms 'who was boss'.  Typical behavior like this from Asa may rub some the wrong way but it is this intensity, which makes him so special.  Nonetheless he is now 8-1 and seems to have sustained a minor injury to his calf in his first defeat to boot. 


Asa's defeat combined with Dejima's win (8-1) may make this yusho race interesting after all.  Too bad these two have already met.  Dejima's resurgence has been impressive as he shows no signs of the Musoyama-like ineptitude that has hampered his sumo since his fall from Ozeki and his subsequent battle with injuries.


Speaking of Musoyama, his fall from grace continues with yet another loss today.  It came at the hands of Tokitsuumi, who put up a respectable fight against Asashoryu on day 8.


Slumping Takanowaka got back on the winning track against Iwakiyama, who was called on to face a sanyaku opponent for the first time in his young career. 


That's all I can recall at the moment.  Like I said, I'm still getting over the news of the day.  We'll miss you, Takanohana.


Day 7 Comments

If you are like me, you got a kick out of Mike going off on Takanohana's tachiai henka yesterday against Tosanoumi.  This sidestepping business is Mike's pet peeve, which is generally understandable, but as I've also stated in the past, I have a slightly different take on it.  I don't have a problem with rikishi employing this maneuver every once in a while to keep opponents honest, as long as it doesn't become a bad habit like Chiyotaikai or a staple of one's arsenal like Asanowaka.  That said, I'll concede that Taka's decision did tarnish a much anticipated bout yesterday, but who would want to absorb Tosanoumi's tachiai?  Not me, especially with a suspect knee and a freshly banged up shoulder.  Under these circumstances, I think it's permissible even for a Yokozuna to take heart the classic Al Davis slogan "just win, baby", even if it's at the expense of the fans' anticipation.  Judging by the result of Taka's decision today to take on Dejima straight up, yesterday's move looks even more golden.  Taka (4-2-1), who lost for the first time on the dohyo today (not really, but officially anyway- see day 2 comments in archives), did not look good trying to stop a hard charging Dejima (6-1).  Even a last ditch counter effort at the tawara (rope) couldn't derail the second hottest rikishi to date. Now three wins behind a seemingly invincible Asashoryu (7-0), Taka's got an almost insurmountable task ahead if he wants to figure into the yusho.


Asashoryu faced Takanowaka (4-3) in another attractive bout today but, not surprisingly, Asashoryu won with no problem.  Takanowaka gave what looked like a valiant effort but he looked a bit out of control on his attack and thus helped himself fall to the dohyo when Asa maneuvered a bit.  A win tomorrow gives Asashoryu a 32-0 record in the first 8 days of the last 4 basho.  A Yokozuna is not supposed to lose early to rank and filers.  I'd say this impressive streak is true to that expectation.


Musoyama (3-4) finally bullied somebody today in Musoyama-like fashion, and he even followed through for the win (applause)!  His victim was the slight Aminishiki (1-6), who looked so good pre-basho that he may have duped Natsuki into selecting him for his fantasy stable.  Natsuki was sitting pretty in first as of yesterday.  Thank goodness for the rest of us that he did select Aminishiki or he'd be running away with this thing.  To make matters worse for Ami, it looked like he may have hyper-extended his elbow when he was being slung about by Musoyama.  Like Miyabiyama and Tochiazuma, will injury claim yet another rikishi this basho?  Let's hope not.


Tosanumi (5-2) stayed hot with a win over Sekiwake Kotomitsuki (4-3).  With his bouts versus joi largely behind him, Tosa's got a good chance to put together an impressive record this time.  You just gotta love this guy.  He's all blue collar, baby.


In hiramaku (rank & file Maegashira), Kotoryu (6-1) beat rookie Kasugao (5-2) in a battle of once-beatens to stay in the driver's seat for chasing Asashoryu.  The other guy right up there with him is none other than Takamisakari (6-1), who after two sub-par bashos is showing that he belongs near the top of Makuuchi.  Let's just hope he doesn't lose his steam beating himself into a pulp gearing up for his opponents every day.


Day 5 Comments

The big news today in an otherwise ho-hum day of bouts was Takanohana's return to the dohyo.  It was the first time in 49 years that a Yokozuna went down mid-basho and actually came back.  As Mike mentioned, the kyokai eased him back by putting him up against Toki (0-5), a one-dimensional slapper with no belt technique.  Even though Taka (3-1-1) continues to be coddled, give him credit for coming back to silence his critics and showing that he is up to the task.  He let Toki do his thing for a while and then disposed of him without even having to grab the belt.  Taka will be tested tomorrow because, to borrow again from Mike, Tosanoumi (4-1) will be “bringin' it.” 


The Asashoryu (5-0) express, enroute to Yokozuna land, rolled by fellow countryman Kyokutenho (3-2).  The manner in which he won, uwatenage with other hand pushing down on the back of his foe's neck, conjured shades of Yokozuna great Chiyonofuji.


Tochiazuma (0-5) lost again, but at least he put up some resistance today against a strong Dejima (4-1).  Tochi's dismal performance thus far may be due in part by his being hospitalized for intestinal problems before the basho.  He was a little slow getting up off the dohyo after today's loss.  Let's hope this warrior can 'gut it out' and duplicate the strong second half he posted in November.


Musoyama (2-3), however, was totally uninspired in losing for the third time in five days.  Worse yet, it came at the hands of Kotonowaka (1-4) who hasn't exactly been knockin' um dead.  Does anyone know of any physical problems with Musoyama?  We need these Ozeki to step up in the absence of all these top rikishi, not stink up the place.


As for the rank and filers, Kotoryu (4-1) and Kaiho (4-1) both suffered their first defeats at the hands of Takanotsuru (4-1) and Tosanoumi, respectively.  Takamisakari (4-1) and Kasugao (4-1) notched wins to keep pace with the one-loss field.  Unfortunately, they're all chasing Asashoryu.


Tochinonada (1-4) finally won his first bout.  This guy is way too good to be struggling this low.  He is killing Mike and yours truly in our inaugural fantasy sumo feature.


Folks, we are one third of the way through and Asashoryu is the only remaining unbeaten.  He is on another level right now.  Not only does it look like he will prove me wrong and win his first 8 for the fourth straight basho, he looks stronger than ever.  The only guy I see standing in his way to a 15-0 record is, dare I say, Takanohana.


Day 3 Comments

A travesty occurred on day 2 of this tournament.  Mike touched on it in his day 2 comments but I still haven't gotten over it.  Let's cut to the chase here.  Takanohana is being coddled by the higher-ups.  Miyabiyama beat Takanohana fair and square; it was just as close as Takanohana's own miraculous last gasp win on day 1 but that bout didn't even warrant a mono-ii.  Why?  Because Takanohana got the nod by the gyoji on day 1, that's why.  But as soon as the nod goes against Taka on a close call, as in day 2, the hands go up.  Let's help the beleaguered Yokozuna on, shall we?  Sumo needs a boost these days with all the injuries.  What better to rekindle fan interest than to have Takanohana face Asashoryu on day 15 with the yusho on the line.  Well, Taka hurt his shoulder and is out now anyway. It serves the Sumo Kyokai right. The fans don't deserve to be served that kind of crap.


As far as day three, I'd say the highlight was Dejima's convincing win over Takanowaka, who had continued his torrid sumo until that point.  This win by Dejima speaks volumes for Asashoryu more than anything because Asa made Dejima look helpless the day before.  Dejima is back folks, and Asa made him look like an amateur.


Asashoryu's victim today was Miyabiyama.  Despite a gallant effort by Miyabi, the Asashoryu freight train will not be derailed.  To boot, it looks as though Miyabi aggravated his ankle injury that he suffered from his miraculous non-win against Takanohana.  This doesn't bode well for those of us who have Miyabi in our fantasy stables.


Long time rivals Musoyama and Tosanoumi butted heads for the 30th time. This is a battle of brute force that rarely disappoints and today was no exception.  Tosanoumi got the W this time to tie the series at 15 wins apiece.  These two duking it out personifies what sumo is all about.


Tochiazuma looks plain awful.  At 0-3, his back is against the wall again. Whether he can string together an impressive streak of wins as he did in November remains to be seen, but at this juncture it does not look good. At least he won't be demoted if he can't get his 8 wins this time.


With the two promising rookies Kasugao and Takanotsuru losing for the first time, attention can now turn to Kotoryu, Kaiho and Takamisakari in the lower Makuuchi.  These three have impressed so far with three straight wins to open the new year.


Day 1 Comments

I don't know whether it's just the new year, the last minute entry of Takanohana or the debut of fantasy sumo, but what an exciting first day to kick off 2003!  Who noticed that Kaio and Chiyotaikai are out?  Not this fan, anyway.  Let's start at the bottom and work our way up to summarize day one.


The two shin-nyumaku (rookies) generating the most press, Korean Kasugao and side-burned Takanotsuru, both got off to good starts.  Of course it's early, but these guys may be pretty fun to watch.


Boy, did you see Takamisakari?  He's taken his pre-bout ritual of knocking himself silly to get fired up to a new level.  I thought he might lose his balance or something.  It seems to have worked, as he used his powerful right inside arm position to scoop throw the hard charging Akinoshima for an impressive win.


Aminishiki, who got raves at the official pre-tournament practice session in front of the cameras, helped make a case for not getting too caught up in such hype as he was easily manhandled by Tokitsuumi.


Takanonami must think he's 20 again and shooting for Ozeki for the first time.  In a battle of veterans, Taka showed uncharacteristic aggressiveness and speed in disposing of Kotonowaka.  It was the 51st time these two have clashed.


Toki came out in a blue suit instead of his trademark bright orange but it didn't help to stop Takanowaka, who looks to have lost no steam from his 11-4 break out basho in November.


Dejima absolutely bulldozed Sekiwake Kotomitsuki.  Wow is the only word I can think of here.  He's got Asashoryu tomorrow.  You won't miss that one if you're any kind of sumo fan these days. 


Musoyama was his usual self.  He took charge early with a strong tachiai, shoving Kyokutenho to the tawara (rope) only to be twisted down at the last second for an opening day loss.  What is it with this guy?  Will he ever be able to follow through? 


The other wildcard, Tochiazuma, ran into a more determined rikishi today in M1 Miyabiyama.  At least he didn't employ his habitual pulldown tactic.  Miyabi's impressive opener makes tomorrow's matchup against Takanohana all the more intriguing. 


Onto the two feature bouts.  Asashoryu had an early test today in his new quest for Yokozuna.  His opponent was none other than my fave, the smash mouth Tosanoumi, and Asa did not disappoint.  In fact, he neutralized Tosa's charge with no problem, then overwhelmed him with superior speed.  Asa said he was a little nervous, but if this is how he responds to anxiety then we've got our first Mongolian Yokozuna sooner than you might think. 


Takanohana, coming off another hiatus, was tested as well as he took on the Barometer, Wakanosato.  Waka brought the house and deserved to win this one, but Taka somehow won while toeing the rope in a completely sideways position with the Komusubi barreling down on him.  This is unbelievable.  That kind of agility is rarely seen by a completely healthy rikishi in a good rhythm, much less from a guy with a highly questionable knee on day 1 of a tournament for which he practiced sparingly.  Remember, this is only Taka's second active tournament in the last 10!  Fans, you're watching a legend here.  Appreciate him while you can.  


That's all for now folks.  Keep an eye on those fantasy standings—it's going to be a rock'um sock'um basho!


2003 Hatsu Basho Pre-basho Report

December 29, 2003 -- The mood is always fresh as the Hatsu basho kicks off another new year, but the circumstances are familiar as we again head into a tournament with a depleted field.  This time, three of the seven rikishi from the top two ranks are already confirmed casualties (Musashimaru- wrist; Kaio- bicep; Chiyotaikai- triceps) while two others are apparently participating but probably at less than 100% (Takanohana- knee; Musoyama- shoulder).  This opens the door a little wider for the red hot Asashoryu to charge through this basho, claim another yusho and stamp his ticket to Yokozuna promotion.  But will it be that easy? 


Asashoryu, welcome to life in a fishbowl- again.  This makes three out of the last four basho where all eyes have been focused squarely on the Mongolian fireball.  He came through on his bid for Ozeki promotion in July, passed the pressure packed test as shin-Ozeki in September, then looked downright gaudy in winning his first shihai as a sophomore Ozeki in November, the only basho where he wasn't in the pre-basho headlines.  So he's clutch, and I'm definitely a fan, but I think he'll be hard pressed to continue his streak of surviving the first 8 days unscathed for the fourth basho in a row, even with a less than stellar field.  Unfortunately, there's no one out there on the radar screen to take the yusho from him, so Asashoryu wins again at 12-3 and becomes the first Mongolian Yokozuna in March.


As usual, whether Takanohana competes is anybody's guess at this point.  We probably won't know until 3 days before shonichi.  But we all DO know what this guy is capable of, as witnessed by his dramatic comeback effort in September.  If he does indeed participate and does so for the entirety of Hatsu basho, he will be Asa's biggest obstacle to the yusho. 


Will Tochiazuma come to play or will he sidestep his way through another basho?  That is the question.  It was somewhat permissible last basho since he was coming off an injury, but that stuff won't fly this time.  Only time will tell if we see the tenacious Tochiazuma again in January.


I have not seen or read the first thing about Musoyama's condition in the past month.  If I knew he were completely healthy, I'd go out on a limb and pick this guy to come up big and challenge for the title but I cannot.  Judging by his injury prone shoulder and his suspicious final bout in November, not to mention his tendency to look strong yet lose often, it's hard to feel confident about this guy right now.


It's a tale of two Sekiwake.  For Takanowaka, we'll find out if an impressive 11-4 record in November means he's really coming of age or if he's simply coming and going.  For Kotomitsuki, we'll see if a mere 8-7 is really the best he can do at this rank.  I say he steps back up this time and shows he belongs among the big boys. 


The two at Komusubi are interesting as well.  Takanonami is coming off a refreshingly strong basho where he sustained his first half momentum to finish with double digit wins.  Like Mike says, this guy still has it; it's simply a matter of whether he wants it bad enough.  Wakanosato, on the other hand, is coming off a lackluster Kyushu where he posted only 7 wins after looking like potential Ozeki material for several bashos preceding.  I feel confident that Waka will shake off his slump and resume his quest for Ozeki with the New Year. 


The rank-and-filers are headed by two joi mainstays in Tosanoumi and Miyabiyama.  Tosanoumi got the banzuke shaft this basho when, after posting a strong 8-7 record in Kyushu, he only got bumped to the more prestigious east side of M1 instead of getting the nod for Komusubi like he deserves.  Considering Tosa's performance of late coupled with Wakanosato's lack thereof last basho, I think the rank for these two should be switched.  Look for Tosa to bring the heat in '03 as usual and cause many a hikiwaza by opponents when they get a taste of his tachiai. Tosa's counterpart, Miyabiyama, is due for a good tournament.  I believe he is as healthy as he's been in a while and thus he is my pick for a sansho this basho.  Miyabiyama, as much as I dislike him, wins 10 and takes Shukunsho.


Don't worry, I won't dissect the remainder of Maegashira one rank at a time.  From M2 down, we're dealing mainly with yo-yo rikishi- the guys who come up to Makuuchi joi only to get blasted down the ranks before working their way up again.  The only possible exceptions I see are Dejima at M3 and Tochinonada way down at M10.  These guys are good enough to hang around at the top.  Two others get my nod as on-the-brink joi mainstays- Hokutoriki at M6 and Shimotori at M7.  Hokutoriki has weathered the newcomer joi wall and, while his sumo still needs polishing, I'll stick my neck out and say he takes Kantosho with a 9-6 outing.  Shimotori's sumo shows no flash and thus goes unnoticed often, but he's a pretty good technician.  He could develop into a mainstay pretty soon.  


Aside from keeping an eye out for the fortunes of sophomore rikishi Iwakiyama (10-5 and Kantosho as shinnyumaku in November) and shinnyumaku Kasugao (11-4 and Juryo Yusho), that's about it.  The injuries continue to hinder the popularity of sumo but that is a can of worms for another day.  Let's just sit back and enjoy what we have and hope for the best in Heisei 15-nen!


Hatsu basho predictions:

Yusho:  Asashoryu, 12-3

Shukunsho:  Miyabiyama, 10-5

Kantosho:  Hokutoriki, 9-6


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